Let’s Talk About Mental Health and Study Abroad (by Sylvia DeMichiel)

"... just being aware is a huge first step in understanding your mental health and being abroad"

Study abroad is often painted as an idealistic experience. Living in a new country. Making friends. Traveling. Eating new food. Having incredible new experiences. It is often marketed as the semester that will change your life. And for some, it could be just that, but that’s not always the case.

I studied abroad my fall semester of my senior year in Cusco, Peru. I was extremely excited. I wanted to explore, travel, eat all the food, and just be in this beautiful historical location, but I had a difficult time. I found myself wanting to sleep a lot. I didn’t connect with the other students. My appetite was minimal. I was no longer excited. I just wanted to go home. I didn’t understand what was happening to me. I learned briefly about Culture Shock, but this lasted longer than Culture Shock was supposed to. I didn’t know who to turn to either. The program I was on just told me to get out more. I ended up figuring it out my own, and a lot later than I wish I did. I went to see an English-speaking therapist in Cusco and volunteered for two hours a day five times a week. Even though I was able to have a better time in the last month I was there, I still felt like I failed study abroad when I came home. I listened to others talk about their amazing experiences abroad, and I just never really said anything. It wasn’t until later that I found that this wasn’t an uncommon experience.

Looking back, I wish I knew what to expect and how to take care of myself mentally when I was abroad. Now, every study abroad experience will be different depending on who you are and where you want to go. I do believe that it’s important to go into this experience knowledgeable about how to take care of yourself mentally when you’re abroad because it can be different than when you are at Wesleyan.

First, I just want to briefly mention a few aspects of study abroad that can affect your mental health and experience.

Environment: When thinking of where you want to go, try to be mindful of the climate of where you are going. Does rainy weather affect your mood? What about how much daylight there is? Do you prefer colder weather?

Culture:  Learning a bit about it before you live there. Is it a masochistic culture? What does the culture think of other religions? Races? Clothing? There often is a lot of discussion surrounding culture in pre-departure so pay attention to that.

Living Situation: Depending on the program you can be staying in homestays, dorms, close quarters on a boat, etc. Do like being surrounded by people most of the time? Do you prefer to have the privacy of your own room?

These are just questions to ask yourself. Just because you prefer sunny weather, and you want to go to a place that has mostly rainy weather, I’m not saying don’t go- but be aware of how it can affect you before you go. By being aware you can create a plan and have an understanding of it. This will help. Also – these are just a few aspects of what can affect you when you go abroad. You also have just normal stresses that will also affect you at home: social life, academics, loss, etc.

As I mentioned, just being aware is a huge first step in understanding your mental health and being abroad. You also should be mindful of the resources that are available to you when you are abroad as well as your coping mechanisms. This can just be by understanding what you do to take care of your mental health at home. You may not actively think about it so thinking about what makes you feel well or happy.  Here are some examples of resources and coping mechanisms:

Medication: If you take medication to take care of your mental health – think about how you will be able to bring your prescriptions abroad – talk to your doctor and know the laws of where you are going.

Therapy: If you are currently attending therapy – can they still see you online when you’re abroad? Should you find a new therapist in the host country? Does your program offer help with this?

Coping Mechanisms: Does exercise help you? Team sports? Music? Cooking? Religion? Meditation? Whatever enables you to stay well, think of how you can adapt this to where you are going to study abroad. Look for team sports at the school where you are going. O for example.

To bring this all together, just be aware of it. I didn’t understand what was happening to me when I went abroad – I only knew of Culture Shock. If I was more aware of it, I could have helped myself sooner. I could have had some plan or idea. I may have had a more exciting experience abroad. I no longer believe I failed study abroad. I learned more about myself when I was in Cusco than I did on my home experience – but it wasn’t what I expected. I just wish I was more prepared or aware of what I could experience so I could have learned even more about myself and handle my mental health properly. Your study abroad experience probably won’t be perfect – but that’s okay. You may struggle with mental health, identity, culture when you are abroad – that’s okay too. Just be aware, and you will come out of this experience learning something new about yourself.